When you think about CBD, what first comes to mind? It might be a coworker who uses it for her anxiety. Or an article you read about its potential benefits for seizure disorders. Or you think of that friend of a friend who swears by it for his arthritis. Regardless of which comes first to your mind, there’s no arguing there are a lot of CBD benefits floating around.
These health claims are backed by varying degrees of scientific research. For example, there is only preliminary evidence that CBD could help with arthritis, but many clinical trials confirm its anti-seizure properties. People use CBD for a ton of different conditions, reporting amazing success. This ranges from psoriasis and depression to IBS, nausea, and even Parkinson’s disease.
But can one compound do all that? If you’re a savvy consumer, hearing claims like the ones above should give you pause. When you hear about a miracle remedy or superfood, your first question should be: “Where’s the research?” With all natural remedies, it’s important to take a look at the evidence.
Some players in the CBD world haven’t evaluated the science with a critical eye. This has led to unfounded claims and misinformation. Many sellers, consumers, regulators, scientists and medical professionals suffer from confusion around CBD. This is true when it comes to pain, inflammation, insomnia and anxiety— some of the most common reasons why people turn to CBD.
So what does the science really tell us about using CBD for these four common health woes? Let’s dive in.
The science behind CBD oil for inflammation
Not all inflammation is bad. In fact, it’s a normal, healthy physiological response. Marked by symptoms like pain, redness, and puffiness, inflammation is what keeps small bumps, bruises, and injuries from becoming life-threatening.
So why is everyone so hellbent on taming inflammation? A problem occurs when the inflammatory response spins out of control or is chronically stimulated by things like stress or a poor diet, which is sadly very common in the world of 2019.
The good news is that CBD has the potential to help. As it turns out, endocannabinoids—the CBD- and THC-like molecules our body produces naturally—work to balance our inflammatory response. They do this by inhibiting cell proliferation (a process where cells divide and multiply rapidly) and suppressing cytokine production and eicosanoid signaling (which are both complex processes that contribute to inflammation in the body). Research has also shown that cannabinoids can induce T-regulatory cells, the ones that help the immune system distinguish between the body’s own tissues and outside invaders.
The endocannabinoid system—AKA, the larger system in the body that CBD and other plant cannabinoids interact with—is also intricately involved in the body’s inflammatory response. Research has shown that when there’s chronic inflammation in the body, endocannabinoid signaling is altered. This connection seems to run deep; there’s actually a published review article titled, “Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs” that concludes: “Manipulation of endocannabinoids and/or use of exogenous cannabinoids in vivo can constitute a potent treatment modality against inflammatory disorders.” Great news for the more than one in five people who suffer from autoimmune disease, of which there are more than 100 different kinds and counting.
The research on CBD as an anti-inflammatory therapy is still very much in development, but it’s an exciting area. Existing treatments for inflammatory disorders, like steroids, leave a lot to be desired (i.e., they are often less-than-effective and side-effect heavy). There’s a lot of room for improvement—and CBD could be a useful tool in the fight for better healthcare.
CBD for pain: Here’s what the research says
If you suffer from chronic pain, you’re definitely not alone. Pain is the number one cause of long-term disability. And there are a lot of people on the hunt for remedies to take the edge off. Enter: CBD, which many people claim has greatly helped their pain. In truth, there’s still a lot we don’t know about CBD and pain in humans. What we do know suggests that when it comes to pain, a combination of CBD and THC may be more effective than CBD alone. If you live in a country or state where medical cannabis is legal, talk to your doctor about this option.
If combination CBD and THC therapies are not available to you, there’s still hope yet! Animal studies have shown improvements in pain and inflammation with the use of topical hemp oil. Pain is also often related to chronic inflammation. Experts think it’s possible CBD could fight pain indirectly by decreasing inflammation and balancing the immune response.
Hopefully there will be more research in the future since the current go-to treatments (ahem, opioids) are extremely addictive and have dangerous side effects. According to the World Health Organization, approx 450,000 people died from drug use in 2015. 118,000 of those were from opioid use disorders. Cannabis-derived therapies like CBD oil may, at least, act as a complementary therapy to help patients decrease their use of opioids. It looks promising: one large online survey, found that nearly half of those who take CBD products stopped taking prescriptions.
CBD for insomnia and sleep disorders
Long work hours, lack of exercise, 20-ounce Starbucks coffees and late-night screen time. It’s no surprise that people are having trouble sleeping. But did you know there are as many as 80 different sleep disorders? It’s true! And they’re becoming more common by the day. Many people swear by CBD for sleep disorders, but the current science on CBD and sleep is somewhat inconsistent.
So what does that mean, exactly? There’s evidence that CBD increases total sleep time , but also evidence that CBD has a wakening and energizing effect. In fact, it might even react with some of the same receptors as caffeine in the body—which means you would not want to take it at night. The authors of one study published in 2006 wrote: “Since CBD induces alertness, it might be of therapeutic value in sleep disorders such as excessive somnolence.”
So what’s the final word on CBD and sleep? We know that the endocannabinoid system helps regulate sleep in some way, we just don’t know exactly how. We need more research. Until then, CBD is worth a try if you have a sleep disorder and you’re looking for a natural remedy. Be prepared to experiment with different doses and don’t be surprised if it goes sideways. We know every individual reacts differently to cannabinoids, so it’s possible that each person’s unique physiology—and the dose they take—could determine if CBD promotes sleep or wakefulness.
CBD for anxiety: What you need to know
Of all the reasons to take CBD, anxiety relief is one of the most prevalent. Anxiety affects almost 20 percent of the adult population in certain countries, so it makes sense that people are turning to CBD. Living with anxiety can be a constant challenge. Many people take pharmaceutical drugs. Benzodiazepines bring almost instant relief, but can be addictive and sometimes abused. If you suffer severe or even occasional anxiety, the thought of an all natural remedy that’s safe and side-effect free sounds almost too good to be true.
So what does the science say about CBD and anxiety? The research on CBD for anxiety disorders is promising. This includes generalized anxiety disorders, social phobias, specific phobias, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder. One study in humans showed that anxiety induced by public speaking reduced with the use of CBD. Another study found that CBD oil reduced anxiety and cognitive impairment compared to placebo. The authors of a paper published in 2012 concluded that “future clinical trials involving patients with different anxiety disorders are warranted, especially of panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorders.” That’s a pretty good summary of what we know thus far.
As with insomnia, many of the exact mechanisms by which CBD works against anxiety still elude us. Research shows the endocannabinoid system is altered in people with anxiety. We now need to know exactly how to use plant cannabinoids to fix this. Unlike its sister molecule THC, which can actually induce anxiety, CBD seems to work to calm the nervous system instead of activating it. In fact, CBD is often used as an antidote for heart palpitations and anxiety triggered by too much THC. Researchers suspect CBD gets this power from its ability to block THC’s ability to bind with an endocannabinoid receptor called CB1, which is found mostly in the brain.
Barriers to studying cannabis
Did you notice each section in this article started with the fact that there’s very little research on CBD and cannabinoids. This is not due to lack of interest or justification for further research on CBD. It’s because of the many barriers that exist to studying cannabis in countries all over the world. The villainizing of cannabis—and any substance derived from hemp or marijuana—has gone so far that it’s nearly impossible to conduct high-quality research on CBD.
In the United States, you have to get approval from three federal agencies to study any substance derived from cannabis, including CBD. The majority of the paperwork cannot be done online and the process can take years. In fact, it took seven years for Dr. Sue Sisley, who wanted to complete the first ever clinical trial on the effects of cannabis in veterans with PTSD. It took 20 more months to receive the plant material. Unfortunately, it did not meet the potency requirements needed for her study…and it was contaminated with mold.
Stories like these are not uncommon in the United States and beyond. In many countries, strict laws and regulations have made it virtually impossible to conduct high-quality research on the effects of cannabis in humans. If Dr. Sisley had not conducted secondary testing on the plant materials provided to her, the results of her study may have been skewed. No-one would have thought that contaminated, low-quality plants were to blame.
The good news is that the public is becoming more aware of the benefits of CBD—and they want to know the truth. Hopefully in the coming years, more research will be permitted. We’d like to know more than only that CBD exhibits certain “properties” in a test tube or animal models. There’s an intense need for high-quality human clinical trials. It’s time to sort truth from myth so we can all get clarity on the benefits of CBD.